Freshmen Focus

Robert Nkemdiche joked with teammates, poking fun at a few who tried to keep a straight face for interviews. Laquon Treadwell, dressed in his jersey, posed for pictures. Kailo Moore did the same.

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On and on, former five and four-star prospects turned Rebels made their way through Ole Miss' indoor practice facility on Friday, the official kickoff of just over four weeks of fall practices leading up to the Rebels' season-opening game at Vanderbilt.

A common theme, however, they didn't speak. Not with media, at least.

No, freshmen were off limits, a policy instituted by head coach Hugh Freeze in each of his two seasons in Oxford. Recruiting rankings, opposing fans tracking their every move, commitment ceremonies and the like? Things of the past.

Like so many players before them, the consensus top-10 recruiting class of February, arguably the most celebrated class in Ole Miss history, has arrived.

And they can be found on the bottom floor.

"When I came in last year, the same way I told them, I came in with a high motor, a high motivation," sophomore defensive tackle Issac Gross said. "I wasn't going to be stopped, no matter what the cost was, no matter what I had to do. I was going to compete to the highest level. That's what you've got to do. You're here for a reason."

The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Gross, who is slowly working his way back from off-season surgery, was named to the SEC All-Freshmen team by SEC coaches and last season. He made seven starts, appeared in every game, and finished third on the team with 10.0 tackles for loss and eighth with 40 total tackles.

Laquon Treadwell
Ole Miss Athletics

So, he knows a thing or two about making an impact immediately, and he's made himself available to any freshman seeking advice.

"We're a family here," he said. "We all lean on each other. We're trying to get somewhere. This is a new Ole Miss. This is a new day. We're trying to win every day.

"I tell them all the time, I came here and whatever it took to get on that field, I did it. Not big enough, not strong enough - all that didn't matter. I'm a football player. I know the game. If you got it in you, push it out. Every time you strap on that helmet, get out there and show them what you can do. If you're not up for that, don't even come out."

Junior defensive back Cody Prewitt has been there, too. He played in all 12 games as a true freshman, including four starts, and followed with a sophomore season that saw him finish second on the team and 33rd in the SEC with 80 tackles.

His contributions were instrumental in Ole Miss engineering a five-game turnaround in the first season under Freeze. The Rebels snapped a three-year bowl drought with a win in the BBVA Compass Bowl, capping a 7-6 record.

"You can't look at it as you're a freshman. You're a D-I player now. You're here for a reason," he said. "You have to deliver every practice, every day for your coaches and do what you're supposed to do every play.

"My way of doing it, I let the coaches do the scolding if scolding needs to be done, if they do something wrong. I try to be the one to build them up and try to correct them and tell them what they need to do to do better the next time. I just try to encourage them, because I've been there before. I know how intimidating it can be coming in as a freshman."

Senior cornerback Charles Sawyer had veterans Cassius Vaughn, Marshay Green and Kendrick Lewis - all of which are now on NFL rosters - to guide him along in his formative football years.

The lesson he learned? "Let them make mistakes," he said, "and then correct them."

Nick Parker
Chuck Rounsaville

"You've got to learn from your mistakes, that's how I learned," Sawyer said. "I went in there (as a freshman), they didn't tell me anything. You're going through the play, you make a mistake, and they're there to tell you what you did wrong. That's what Cassius, Marshay, Kendrick - that's what they did."

Parker transitioning to tight end:

Ole Miss is searching for answers at tight end.

Gone are two tight ends signed in the class of 2013. A.J. Jackson failed to qualify academically. Christian Morgan was hurt in spring practices and is likely to redshirt. Evan Engram is the lone man standing.

"Evan is the guy we have to get ready to play and ask him to do things we need him to do," Freeze said. "But we're thin there, and it'll affect how we look this year."

Freeze is experimenting at the position. So much so, he moved junior running back Nick Parker, who played in seven games in 2012, mostly on special teams.

"He mentioned it to me, so I thought I'd give it a try," Parker said. "It's a good experience for me. Hopefully, I'll make it work out."

Parker said blocking schemes are the toughest adjustment.

"First, I have to learn the plays, get them down pat," Parker said. "Second, they have a lot of different (blocking) schemes. I got to get used to it. Hopefully, the coaches can coach me on up to get me a starting job."

Gross coming along:

The off-season wasn't kind to Gross.

He had sports hernia surgery in January. An attempted return during spring practices in April only led to an aggravation of the injury, and then he had another procedure to remove some scar tissue in his groin area.

"He and Charles (Sawyer) are the farthest off," from returning, Freeze said.

Gross was hopeful Friday that he would be ready come Vanderbilt.

"Injury-wise, I'm coming," he said. "I'm coming at a pace that I've got to take it day-by-day. As the days go by, I improve. I'm getting stronger in my lower body, which I've got to build back up. Just hoping for the best and praying I'll be ready when that time comes.

Jeff Scott
Ben Garrett

"I'm going to be ready (for Vanderbilt). If I'm out there on that field, I'm going to give it all I got. I hope I am. I don't want to just say something and it not be that way. I'm just trying to prepare my best. I'm hoping to be ready."

End in sight:

Jeff Scott can see the finish line. The finality of it all, the end of his college career, is some five months away.

Football has been a way of life for Scott, a 5-foot-7, 167-pound running back. He's well aware that if he's to have a future in the game he loves beyond his senior season, he'll have to prove himself, both on and off the field.

"Getting older, I've seen a lot of things," Scott said. "I'm a senior. This is my last football season playing college football. I'll never be able to play it again. I want to go out with a bang; I don't want to come up short."

Scott ranks ninth in school history with 1,804 rushing yards and ninth with 2,966 all-purpose yards. He's tied for 10th with 15 rushing touchdowns. He led the team with 846 rushing yards on 197 attempts as a junior.

This season, he has loftier goals.

"One of my ultimate goals is to rush for 1,000 yards for a season," he said. "I came up short last year. We have such a good team and a lot of young guys. The potential, it's crazy what this team can really do.

"I just want to make my teammates better and be better as a player."

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